Collection

Marvel Years

Childhood memoirs in the LRB archive by Hilary Mantel, Richard Wollheim, Lorna Sage, Edward Said, Mary-Kay Wilmers, Rosemary Dinnage, David Sylvester, Jenny Diski, Sean Wilsey, Lorna Finlayson, Yun Sheng and Jonathan Lethem.

Giving up the Ghost

Hilary Mantel, 2 January 2003

You come to this place, mid-life. You don’t know how you got here, but suddenly you’re staring fifty in the face. When you turn and look back down the years, you glimpse the ghosts of other lives you might have led; all houses are haunted. The wraiths and phantoms creep under your carpets and between the warp and weft of fabric, they lurk in wardrobes and lie flat under drawer-liners.

Germs: A Memoir

Richard Wollheim, 15 April 2004

As a child, I loved lists of all sorts, and found that all sorts of things could be listed. I listed the sails on a windjammer, not knowing how they worked, and the names of philosophers, not knowing what they were, and, a particular source of pleasure, the names of royal mistresses and of royal favourites, not knowing how they earned their keep.

The Old Devil and his wife

Lorna Sage, 7 October 1993

Grandfather’s skirts would flap in the wind along the churchyard path, and I would hang on. He often found things to do in the vestry, excuses for getting out of the vicarage (kicking the swollen door, cursing) and so long as he took me he couldn’t get up to much. I was a sort of hobble; he was my minder and I was his.

All families invent their parents and children, give each of them a story, character, fate, and even a language. There was always something wrong with how I was invented and meant to fit in with the world of my parents and four sisters.

Diary: Brussels

Mary-Kay Wilmers, 29 July 1999

I was born, not long before the Second World War, in the United States, where until the age of nine I lived in a succession of different towns and states, of which New York was the last, the place from which I left the country for good. I didn’t know at the time that we weren’t going back; and it was only later that it occurred to me that I’d spent the rest of my childhood in some sort of exile.

Diary: Evacuees

Rosemary Dinnage, 14 October 1999

Was I just too seasick to care? Or too stupid to understand that war can really kill? Does memory blot out fear? If so, I wish it would also blot out homesickness, friendlessness, a lifelong sense of – weirdness? numbness?

Memoirs of a Pet Lamb

David Sylvester, 5 July 2001

I cannot recall the crucial incident itself, can only remember how I cringed when my parents told me about it, proudly, some years later, when I was about nine or ten. We had gone to a tea-shop on boat-race day where a lady had kindly asked whether I was Oxford or Cambridge. I had answered: ‘I’m a Jew.’

Diary: Dragged to the Shoe Shop

Jenny Diski, 14 November 2002

The Dickensian and mawkish nature of the occasion as I recall it, the drab light and huddled aspect of the shoe shop, suggest that this may be one of those false memories you hear so much about, conjured up to match the dismal mood of the event. The old man who owned the place, unshaven, bent, gruff and wheezing – the Victorian workhouse vision just won’t go back in its box – inspected the voucher, measured my feet, and without a word shuffled to the back of the shop. He returned with a single shoe box. ‘See if these fit,’ he said to my mother.

One summer day, a year after I’d started skating, a few months after I was kicked out of the boarding school, Blane and I were cruising down Market Street towards the Bay. Market is a great, long diagonal slot through the heart of the city to the Embarcadero. We were moving through the edge of the Tenderloin, and I was feeling confident from the good skating I’d put in the day before. Blane was about ten feet ahead.

Diary: I was a Child Liberationist

Lorna Finlayson, 18 February 2021

I’d made a decision not to tell anybody I was leaving and waited until the end of the autumn term so that nobody would know what I’d done until the new year. It would be my own secret, daunting escape. My private anti-climax.

I was born in 1980, the year China implemented the one-child policy: I don’t have siblings, and neither do my peers. Whenever a Westerner learns that I’m an only child, the facial expression is a give-away: ‘You must have been terribly spoiled’ or ‘You must have been terribly lonely.’

Diary: My Marvel Years

Jonathan Lethem, 15 April 2004

As a child, I suffered a nerdish fever for authenticity and origins of all kinds, one which led me into some very strange cultural places. Any time I heard that, say, David Bowie was only really imitating Anthony Newley, I immediately lost interest in David Bowie and went looking for the source, sometimes with the pitiable results that this example suggests.

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